Two fingerstyle virtuosos blend lush tones, artful compositions, and low-key comedy with a cool-headed conversational approach.
One evening last August, I drove through the glittering streets of Los Angeles to check out the acoustic guitar duo of Mark Goldenberg and Eric Skye at Genghis Cohen, a Szechuan restaurant and live-music venue in West Hollywood. I found the pair ensconced in the restaurant's cozy music room, presenting their quietly thrilling brand of jazz-oriented fingerstyle guitar to a rapt and intimate audience.
The guitarists were celebrating the release of their debut album, Artifact. Their playing corresponded neatly to their appearance. Goldenberg, 63, looking like a cool professor with his spectacles and Chuck Taylor All Stars, exhibited compositionally minded restraint while drawing from a vast palette of harmonic colors. Fourteen years Goldenberg's junior, Skye—whose brawny physique is emphasized by a sleeve of tattoos—worked in a comparatively more athletic mode. They played together telepathically, calling to mind the great duo records guitarist Jim Hall and pianist Bill Evans made in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, a sketchy-looking dude in a sleeveless t-shirt was making his presence increasingly known as he kept walking into and out of the room, presumably getting refills on the gin and tonic that never left his hand, and getting louder with each re-entrance. The dude began encroaching on the music with a series of incoherent vocalizations, and each time Goldenberg responded unflappably with some well-timed one-liners. He later told me, “I attract hecklers. I think it's the aftershave."
It's Goldenberg's adaptability and good humor that have made him a top-shelf sideman. He's played both electric and acoustic guitar for many greats, including Jackson Brown, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and even William Shatner. He's a skilled songwriter as well. His work has been recorded by Ronstadt, Chicago, and Olivia Newton-John. And he's a brilliant solo guitarist, as heard on his self-titled 2005 album.
Skye, equally adroit in any situation, has long been a fixture in the fingerstyle world. His solo output, like A Different Kind of Blue—a reimagining of Miles Davis' 1959 game-changing Kind of Blue—is a revelation, and his trio work, as heard on Slow Moving Dog, reveals Skye to be a generous bandleader and a deep listener.
A couple of months after their gig, I spoke via conference call to the duo: Goldenberg at home in Los Angeles and Skye in Portland, Oregon. As we talked about their methodologies—and, of course, their gear—the easy camaraderie so evident in their playing was reflected in their witty banter.
It sounds like you've been playing together for years. When and how did you meet?
Skye: We met at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival [in Santa Rosa, California] in 2008, when we were put on the same bill. We played a tune together, kind of impromptu, and it just felt great. A few months later I had a couple of gigs in Arizona and called up Mark and said, “Hey, wanna come and meet me and do these gigs together?" And we just hit it off, musically and otherwise.
Are there any challenges in having a long-distance duo?
Goldenberg: I don't really see us having any challenges. If we lived in the same town we'd probably play together a lot more and we'd have band meetings and arguments [laughs]. Long distance works out pretty well. We play together enough that we have a really great time and we're constantly surprising each other with the stuff that we've been playing on our own. It doesn't get stale this way.
Skye: I agree. The biggest part of what we do involves two friends who haven't seen each other in a while, having a conversation. We don't practice. If we have a gig together, we go into separate rooms, just to warm up. We don't want to work anything out, so that what we do is really spontaneous. Maybe if we lived in the same town we'd start working things out, but I'm not that kind of player. I don't want to sit and worry about planning endings and who goes first. Like a good conversation, I'd rather just listen to what Mark's been up to and respond. It's the back and forth that's basically what our act is. No one's out there singing or looking good in spandex.
How often do you get to play together, and what happens when you meet up?
Skye: Maybe three or four times a year. There are big chunks of time when we don't play together, like when Mark went out on the road with Hugh Laurie for a year-and-a-half. Most of the time we go out to lunch and catch up personally and leave most of the music stuff for the stage. But there are times when one of us has made up a new tune or thought of a cover, and we've talked about the names of the chords or whatever, to make sure they mean the same thing to each other. We might occasionally run through new things at sound check, but it's best not to leave the fight in the gym.
What sorts of things, musical or otherwise, do you talk about at lunch?
Goldenberg: What's on the menu, string gauges, politics, whether or not we should have dessert…
In your duo, do you split the compositional duties equally?
Goldenberg: Basically, we do. For the album we did eight songs and each brought four, some that we had played in the past and a couple new things, too. Many of the songs were ones we each do in our solo repertoire, so we modified them. Actually, we didn't even really modify them, but played them as duets and they kind of modified themselves.
Mark, can you talk more about how a composition has modified itself?
Goldenberg: I wrote this simple tune called “The Soft Shell," originally for a trio that I was recording for a music library. It worked out pretty good as a trio tune, and one day I just decided to do it as a solo because it was easy to improvise on—not extremely challenging in terms of the harmony or the melody. Then, I faxed a lead sheet of it to Eric, and that's basically as far as we go in terms of working out tunes. That's not to say that we don't have set structures. When we get together and play, it usually works out that the composer of the tune plays the melody. But after that, all bets are off.
Skye: After that, it's just about listening carefully or looking for raised eyebrows, that kind of thing.
Goldenberg: Sweating—looking for the other guy sweating [laughs].
It sounds like there's a minimum of preplanning and arranging in your duo, and lots of nonverbal communication.
Goldenberg: What we do is so unconscious. It's really like Eric said—a conversation. Sometimes a conversation, especially at my house, is everyone talking loudly at the same time. Sometimes the conversation is one person essentially talking to himself or herself and another person going, “Uh-huh, uh-huh." We do all of that in our duo together. It's completely organic in that we don't really need to discuss game plans.
Early on, we knew that we played well together, because we were both good listeners. So we're not always playing all the time. And when we are both playing, we are unconsciously taking opposition. It's kind of a jazz form—we do play a head, and we never play anything the same way twice, or, as we like to say, we never play anything the same way once [laughs]. It's pretty free form, but we do have some sort of structure, and it's held together with string and chewing gum.
Skye: I make only a few conscious decisions in advance. On a few of the tunes on the record, I used a capo, knowing that Mark wouldn't—that kind of bakes some different voicings into the cake. But we never think about things like, “You go high, I'll go low." You just have to trust that you're going to hear that stuff and respond to it.
Eric Skye performs live and in the studio with his two signature model 12-fret 00s built by Santa Cruz Guitar Company. One has an Adirondack spruce top and cocobolo back and sides, and the other has a European spruce top. Photo by Andrea Corrona Jenkins
What makes for a good listener?
Skye: I would compare listening to meditation—at least in the sense that what I'm trying to remember to do is just notice when shiny objects appear on the road, but not pick them up. So thoughts about what I just played or wish I played, or about my back aching in the chair, or what I need to do when I get back home, I try to set aside and come back to what's really happening in the moment. Mark?
Goldenberg: [Feigns inattentiveness.] Uh—what you were saying.
How have you influenced each other in working together as a duo?
Goldenberg: Well, I'm always trying to steal his licks [laughs].
Skye: Mark's had a huge influence on me. I really wasn't writing a lot of music before playing with him. Most of my albums had just been me butchering jazz tunes [laughs]. I'd only occasionally done originals. But Mark has really encouraged me to write some tunes. And I've always been kind of a chord nerd, but Mark is even more so. I'm definitely thinking much more about harmony, and my playing has become more edited, which I think is definitely needed.
How has it become edited?
Skye: When Mark plays, he's very eloquent and very melodic, telling great stories with his improvisations. He naturally cuts away everything that isn't related to the tune or the melody at the moment. There's not a lot of extra stuff in there saying, “Look at me, I'm a guitar player." It's incredibly complex, but it's simple at the same time. And I think that I do play like that sometimes, but other times I get some ego in there, and fill in more. But now I'm trying to think more maturely.
Mark, what have you learned from Eric?
Goldenberg: Eric hassuch superior technique; he can do so much on the guitar that I can't even hope to do. It's phenomenal, and I just like to comp and take a back seat. I go, “Wow—he just did all that with one finger. Holy mackerel!" But it's never like I'm watching someone who's grandstanding. He has the ability to make all this stuff really musical, which is why I think we play well together. Because even though we have different techniques and approaches, we both try to tell a story.
Mark, at the Genghis Cohen gig, you played a nylon-string, and Eric, you used a small-body Santa Cruz. What guitars did you play on Artifact?
Skye: I used the same guitar as at the gig, my signature-model 12-fret 00 from Santa Cruz Guitar Company, which is pretty much all I play. I've got one with an Adirondack spruce top and cocobolo back and sides, and another with a European spruce top.
Goldenberg: I used a Collings 001Mh—an all-mahogany, 00-size steel string—just that and a footstool. We left our wah-wahs and all our effects racks at home [laughs].
Mark, as a guitar aficionado how did you choose which instrument to play?
Goldenberg: When we've played together over the last couple of years, I've tried a bunch of different guitars, but because of its mahogany construction, my little Collings seems to really complement the sound of Eric's guitar. It's less complex with its overtones, so it has a kind of purer, simpler—purer, simpler, just like me!—tone [laughs].
Currently I'm playing a Kenny Hill double-top classical, which has a pretty dissimilar but complementary sound to Eric's Santa Cruz. It has a lot of volume. Eric has a very manly way of playing, probably because he does 700 push-ups before a show. I need a little extra beef because I have a pretty soft touch. The Kenny Hill's been great for this, and Eric doesn't have to pull back as much when I'm taking the lead.
Why didn't you use the Kenny Hill on the recording?
Goldenberg: I didn't have that particular guitar at the time. I had a different Kenny Hill, with a raised fretboard that I had a little bit of an ergonomic problem with. The one I most recently got is a Performance Model, so it doesn't have the raised fretboard. It feels just right when I play it, and it's got such a beautiful tone. I play a lot of electric and [steel-string] acoustic and classical, and the transition to the Kenny Hill is very smooth. It doesn't take much to get used to its nut width and string height.
Mark, in a nutshell, how'd you arrive at the sophisticated harmonic language that's apparent on Artifact?
Goldenberg: I had great musical teachers and mentors who loved harmony and the handling—and mishandling—of notes: Ted Greene, Richard Pick, and [pianist] Abe Fraser.
Eric, what about your prodigious fingerstyle technique, which involves fingerpicks and a thumbpick—an unusual approach for jazz?
Skye: My fingerstyle technique is kind of a hodgepodge. I did study classical guitar for a few years in middle and high school, but I don't want to overstate that. I didn't get all that far. To be honest, I don't really put a lot of thought into it. I just hear stuff and try to pull it off. Actually, I've thought quite a bit more about flatpicking. I'd like to get a little right-hand routine going this year. I'm going to research it.
The album has a beautifully detailed sound. Describe how it was recorded.
Goldenberg: I have a friend, Lynne Earls, who lives close by me in Los Angeles and has a really nice studio, so she recorded the album for us. It's a very simple recording. We didn't do stereo miking and instead put a single [Neumann] U 87 on each guitar. That's not a mic people generally use for recording acoustic, but I have one and so does my friend, and it made sense to go with our matched pair. It wasn't particularly close-miked. We just sat across the room from each other and played. I don't think Lynne used any compression at all on the recording. It's pretty straight-ahead and it's a good representation of what we sound like in person, except we added, like, three or four thousand gallons of reverb.
Skye: It was very spontaneous. We played some of the tunes together for the first time when we went in to make the album. It's basically just one long take. We were in and out of the studio in about three hours.
Goldenberg: There was only one song that we recorded more than once.
Skye: There were a couple of tunes that went a little longer when we recorded them, and we edited out a chorus or two for the album. If something's done all in one take, you can't really borrow from Peter to pay Paul, you just remove a big piece of real estate.
Your roles on the record—and in concert—seem pretty fluid.
Skye: There's plenty of times on the record and live where we start off where I'm comping and Mark's playing more single-note lines or the other way around, although it's never really quite that simple. When I'm comping, I'm never just holding down the fort. I'm trying to think of chords that will make Mark zig or zag one way or the other. But more and more live, and I think a few places on the record, there's these little transcendent moments where we're both playing single notes and they become intertwined and we completely leave the comping-and-single-note paradigm behind. I really dig that. On “The Bridgetown Shuffle," there's the place where it gets into this sort of baroque thing with these open strings ringing out. When we can get to that place, there's where the beauty is. That's the shit.
Despite the minimal setup, is it difficult to get a good sound live?
Goldenberg: Not so much. We just go for it live and try to get the best acoustic sound we can without using any electronics—just mic—and have everyone listen quietly. We do a mic in front of each of us. It's so simple. We're a soundman's delight, as we like to say.
Skye: I think we're fortunate to be at the point where the people come to really listen. Last time we played Portland we didn't even use any mics—just sat next to each other and played guitar, enjoying the natural acoustics of a really nice-sounding room. We did that up in Seattle last year, too. We've never plugged in, except for an appearance at one NAMM show.
You mention people coming to really listen. What have your audiences been like?
Goldenberg: It's interesting. I used to think that the audience for what we do is just other people who play fingerstyle guitar, but we played at a concert in Portland where it seemed like a cross-section of music lovers were in attendance—it wasn't a guitar-centered crowd, per se. I think that when we get together as a duo, we're kind of transcending the normal world of fingerstyle guitar and going into some other territory. We could be up there with two trombones and it would be the same effect. Well, hopefully it wouldn't be the same effect [laughs].
In this live July 2015 performance of “The Soft Shell" from their new duo album, Artifact, Mark Goldenberg and Eric Skye display their graceful style of musical conversation on nylon- and steel-string guitars. They constantly pass themes and melodies back and forth, with Goldenberg initially taking the lead and Skye entering with a bass note melody at the 2:00 mark, which he expands and explores until 3:30, when Goldenberg retakes the baton.